[Response Story to Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat”.]
In the cold winter clear, a pure white red-eyed pony with tufted ankles and a soft curly mane (curving prettily in its cascade) danced across his blurry, exhausted vision. The land had been a black expanse in his closed snow-planted eyes, but it rose now sparkling white before him, travelling flat and low but searingly sunlit so he couldn’t’ve said where the bright land stopped and the birth sky began.
“I’ll run and I’ll catch that albino pony,” he told himself with a flaring emotion filing his chest with a moment’s false certainty. It knew itself false even as it filled his chest and lifted his shoulders, drawing him up and on.
What would he do with that pony anyway?, one wonders.
He didn’t know where the others had gotten to, or where he’d gotten to, for that matter. He scanned the eerily flat and endless snow-meadow for signs of human fabrics or motions. Silent and still, only a few sketched trees, their gray limbs topped with thick mushrooming ledges of snow-frosting.
He’d put on a coat when the plane was trending down and crooked. He was now glad of that, and for the bright knit cap with the silly snowball poof that he’d found in one of the pockets. No gloves though, and his fingers twittered with a wet cold numbness that seemed to panic up at him with redoubled convulsions when he thought of them. What to do? He needed them to help him to his feet, but he needed to heal them in the thick square pockets, but he couldn’t really use or move them because they seemed to be made of a brittle and painful glass. On his belly in the snow, cobraing up in a yoga pose he now resented, the world too loud with sun- and snow-light, his hands stretched up and out to the side where their morbid pale curling stiffness couldn’t trouble his vision, he gradually wiggled his legs deeper and deeper into the snow, which seemed to have no end.
Presently, up to his chest in the powder (except at the point of contact with his chest, where it was slightly crusted so felt somehow much too hard and sharp to his frazzled senses, his boots hit something solid and he began to wind himself back and upward. The snow, you see, really only came up to a little below his waist, and here he was now, gingerly maneuvering his poor fingers into the nice big sheepskin pockets, with large fortunate top-openings. Side openings he could’ve never gotten his hands into. The pain of this relatively simple crane-drop of his frozen-curved fingers was already a little past what he could take. His mouth and throat tightened for to bellow out his misery, but the ice-air seized up his lungs and he silently crumpled forward a bit over his shoulders like a man surprised by a knife to the gut.
He’d forgotten about catching the horse. And when the thought returned to him while choking on freezing lungs, it seemed to him like an old old memory, perhaps from childhood. And he found himself longing not to catch it or ride it or anything so extravagant, so out of keeping with his current, gravely-humbled place in life; but to only perhaps, God-willing, rest against it while it ambled as the spirit moved it. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if within its gentle thought some sense of his need mingled with knowledge of the terrain, leading them both — who knows!? — to a warm and comfy cabin, where even now the entire valiant crew laughed and drank, having already eaten their fill of steak and potatoes and all the other magical mother-knows-best fare that he’d abandoned back when he thought he was going to live to ripe old age and should therefore make sensible choices while still a relatively young man.
Strange that they should all be lost to him. Of course, they might be assembled behind him right now, giggling at this practical joke accidentally befalling him. How could he know?, unable to turn around as he was. And surely five people in winter parkas, dress slacks, and fleece-lined Australian-shepherd boots are unlikely to vanish from the face of the earth — let alone a ten-seater propeller plane. There was no other option. He’d have to turn around. So he could see them, and tell them to lay off, that it really wasn’t funny, and would someone please help him out of this deep bit of snow that he — just his luck — had landed in.
I won’t bore you with the details of his excruciating 360 degree journey. Suffice it to say: the strange mesa stretched as far as the eye in all directions, snow and sky were blindly sunny in all directions, and the snow was pristine everywhere save immediately surrounding him, where, he had to admit, he’d made a real mess of things. His lungs rebelled against the crisp fatal dryness of the sparse mountain air. And he thought it best to do as he found his body doing: sinking to his knees and falling forward 45 into the tender snow, which compassionately built a pillow around him until he came to a gentle stop at about 45 degrees away from upright.
Sleepily, he mumbled in his mind while closing his eyes, “I think I should die now”. It was no different to him than, “I think I should go to bed now” had been the night before, as he seemed to now know, without having to actually think the matter through, that death and sleep were identical, and that his body was now exhausted beyond what sleep could restore, and so the wisest course of action was a sleep that this particular body will not awake from, allowing that essential portion of his watching mind to finally get that fully refreshing and restorative rest that, it now seemed to him, he’d actually been craving for a very long time, since perhaps always, certainly ever since he’d first realized it was time to make something of himself. Not that he had been wrong to make something of himself! But, now, well, the point was that was all just as well — he’d done what he could given what had been asked of him, and now he was heading for some well-deserved r&r
But he didn’t die, nor even sleep, and presently a gentle but persistent nuzzling roused him first to his senses, and then, the nuzzles paired with knickers, snorts, pawings, and all manner of equine entreaties, on to his staggering feet. He flung his arms over the sleek velvety hide, over the round muscle-rippling back. And there he slept-walked, awake but deep in the slumbering comradeship of the warm ponyside. The pony walked slowly somewhere, and his feet grapevined along. The melting snow in his sheepskin boots tickled his toes. What a remarkable creature! I would’ve thought a Himalayan yak would’ve found this temperature forbidding; and here was some albino version of the Shetland pony, bred more for the windy soggy and gray but generally above-freezing Scottish Highlands, calmly navigating minus 30 Fahrenheit! Sunny, though. Granted: a very sunny minus thirty.
Our hero entered a kind of dreamy awareness that hung upon and was wrapped up in the snow-white pony with the sad red eyes as if his consciousness and the pony’s warm body were one object.
He awoke the next day in a nice warm bunk, beneath three stout patchwork quilts, to the rich aroma of frying bacon and percolating coffee and the din of human chatter and laughter.
Had it all been a dream? But if so, where was he? Since this seemed a log cabin and he had no log cabin in his life. Nor recognized he the flannel PJs within which his body still shook a little from yesterday’s freeze. And belonged those voices not to his friends? His friends from the trip, now also, as if in continuous and logical narrative action, together in this snowed-under valley? Happily united, and to all appearance in possession full provisions, within a snug cabin gazing out on a white sparkling pillow blanket that reached as high as, but no higher than, its windowsills?
Had the pony kindly recovered each of them? Or was he the only one requiring that extra special rescue? What a remarkable animal! Was it a male? Could it yet be studded out? Imagine what a beast could fetch — assuming its genius inheritable, which he now found himself doubting. Silly! Silly to allow such shallow, ungrateful prattle to grow around his miraculous delivery. Like a leper looking to patent Jesus’s leprosy cure! He shook all consideration of pony-breeding out of his mind and stretched his arms back and out the sides of the narrow bunk.
His friends were all there and everyone’s spirits were gay and lively, as if there’d been no crash, no blind exhaustion in the deadly cold, no near death march. And so, with only a slight dissonance and swallowed-chagrin, he settled cheerfully down at round table, accepted steaming flapjacks and coffee, and even chocked a little on his sausage while bursting out uproariously at one of John’s clever sallies, so that he had to turn his head away, and catch a little pulped pancake and spiced pork in the cheap paper napkin.
Susan looked so beautiful in her tight light-blue sweater. Her curves sang to him of life overflowing, and whispered strong reproofs against wasted time in this uncertain endeavor, that might slip from a man at any moment, whether or not he’d done all he could to be and employ his full self. At some point someone mentioned a sled dog she’d once known, and it occurred to him that soon they’d begin discussing the pony; but they didn’t, at which point he wondered if perhaps he should introduce the topic; but everything flowed on so mirthfully, and so at the top of things, that it never seemed like the right time to dredge up the heavy theme of miracle-working, self-sacrificing animals. Also the eggs, buckwheat cakes, bacon, hashbrown, and coffee were all so unbelievably good that he felt compelled not just to savor this once-in-a-lifetime meal, but to muse upon it, to attempt to somehow cogitate it. He held himself still and quiet for a space, clinging intently to the experience like a mathematician vaguely revolving some great proof in her great mind.
In the kitchen, alone with Susan, washing and rinsing the dishes she dried and stored, certain that he must act, come what may.
“How are you? Did the pony find you too?”
“What? What pony?!”
“The white pony. Of red eyes. After we were all thrown apart.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“After the crash!”
She laughed and shook her head at his strange, and in this case rather sick, sense of humor.
The trip, I’m sure you’ll be happy to hear, was a great success. He even managed to convey his feelings to Susan; and she even managed to feel the same. They even pulled off a tentative and awkward first kiss in a stolen moment in the men’s bunkroom, while sitting side by side on the edge of a bottom bunk, bent a little forward to dodge the top bunk — the effort for that dodge was minimal, neither being very tall.
I don’t know: should he tell their children that he’s most likely been dreaming ever since the crash? That they are almost certainly just a nice dream in one crushed-in dying brain, a nice dream that somehow stretched out experientially for the span of a rich, happy, full — if completely fabricated — life? To tell one’s own children that they don’t exist! That you, their progenitor, are most likely dying a virgin, face down in the wickedly cold, soft-powdered snow! Seems cruel, to freak everybody out like that, whether or not they exist beyond the sketchy collection of moving sounds and shapes that you know them as. Better to just be kind to everyone and keep your surmises to yourself.